Rediscovering Lost Tibet
by Jetsun Pema
Although Tibetans live scattered in small communities throughout India, news travels really fast. The news of two proposed Hollywood movies about Tibet spread like wildfire among the world's estimated 130,000 Tibetan exiles. Everyone was talking about it and asking all sorts of questions.
So when the casting director for Seven Years in Tibet came to see me, I already knew quite a bit about what was happening. She asked me if I would like to meet Jean-Jacques Annaud, the director of the movie, when he came to Delhi, to which I agreed.
We met in Delhi some time later. Jean-Jacques asked me to act in the movie, and I told him that I would first like to see the script and a film he had previously directed. I saw The Bear and was deeply moved by it. It has a wonderful connection with Buddhism and Buddhism's primary concern of generating compassion. I felt that a person who made such a movie as The Bear would make a movie on Tibet with the same sensitivity.
I thought a lot about Seven Years in Tibet and my own role in it. My children and relatives urged me to take up the offer, since they could not picture anyone else acting the part of my mother. So when I met JeanJacques again, I told him I would take part.
Acting in the movie was an unforgettable experience for all the Tibetans who were involved. Old and young alike, we came to learn a great deal about Tibet in the 1940s. The older people relived our country's recent past, and some even reenacted their own roles in shaping the very events that engulfed Tibet. For the young, it was a moving discovery of a homeland they had heard about, and a real eye-opener to our country's rich traditions and wonderful culture. Many of them had hardly believed that Tibet was such a place as the movie portrayed, and their curiosity about and enthusiasm for the cause of Tibet's freedom increased manyfold.
To all of us, the movie became an eloquent voice for the anguish of Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet tells the story of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, two Austrian mountaineers who escaped British internment in India and managed to escape to Tibet, where the people welcomed them as friends. The movie ends when the forces of communist China rumbled into Tibet, smashing up the culture and love of life of the peace-loving Tibetans. It was then that Harrer made up his mind to leave, after spending seven wonderful years in the country.
The time when Harrer left Tibet was also the time when the Tibetans' peaceful existence came to a tragic end. Having believed for centuries that the world would leave it alone, Tibet was not equipped to defend itself when China marched in. In the end, the Tibet seen through the eyes of Harrer, the Tibet of the 1940s, the Tibet that inspired the myth and dream of Shangri-La, was lost forever. The old Tibet has indeed become a "lost horizon."
People of more than twenty-five different nationalities from across the world took part in the making of Seven Years in Tibet. We literally took over the little town of Uspallata in the Argentinean Andes. Everyone was so friendly and it was so peaceful up there --- just like old Tibet. It was also a wonderful reunion for the Tibetans. Since going into exile, they had settled in different countries, and this was the first time they had the opportunity to meet again.
The driving force behind this enormous effort was the director himself. Jean-Jacques Annaud worked hard from early morning to late at night, seven days a week. It was encouraging to see that he believed in the capacity of every one of us to contribute our very best towards making his movie. The whole unit, the cast and crew, worked so effectively and harmoniously, and we all became one big family.
The re-creations on the different sets of the Potala steps, the Jokhang, and the Lhasa streets deeply affected all the Tibetans. We saw these icons of the Tibetan identity and knew that the originals were no more. For me personally, to relive the Tibet of my childhood and to act the role of my own mother was a wonderful and moving experience. Many times, tears came to my eyes, and I had to tell myself that this was "only a movie." It was hard but I managed.
Being part of Seven Years in Tibet made us all the more aware that our beautiful country is now no more. The movie was like a dream that we wanted never to end, and we hope that someday this dream will come true.
by Jetsun Pema